Bloody Birthday (1981)

The lineage of films borrowing from the killer-children British chiller Village of the Damned has echoed thunderously over the last half-century – from the Euro-grindhouse provocation of Who Can Kill a Child? to the corny folk tale of Children of the Corn to the cosmic Christmas horror subversion of The Children and beyond. If 1986’s Bloody Birthday does anything especially novel with this Evil Children subgenre it’s in the way it retrofits Village of the Damned into the post-Halloween slasher format. If you cut the killer children angle out of the film entirely, this picture would be unmistakable as a cheap-o Halloween knockoff. Its designated bookworm Final Girl archetype walks down suburban streets fending off invitations to party & sin with her promiscuous friends, scenes that look like half-remembered recreations of specific Halloween moments. Her doomed-to-die neighbor friend’s dad is even town sheriff, like in the John Carpenter classic, and the final showdown with the film’s pint-sized killers is a harrowing night of babysitting gone awry. Swapping out the looming presence of Michael Myers with a small cult of toe-headed rascals is a pretty substantial deviation from the Halloween slasher template, however, offering the Village of the Damned formula an interesting new subgenre avenue to explore. It’s an unholy marriage of two horror sensibilities that likely shouldn’t mix, and that explosive combination makes for a wickedly fun time.

Unlike in Village of the Damned, there isn’t much explanation provided as to why the murderous tykes of Bloody Birthday are evil. The three unrelated miscreants are born simultaneously in a small town during an absurdly windy solar eclipse, and their wickedness is waved off with Astrological babblings about cosmic alignments. What’s more important than their origin is the Lawful Evil characterization in their costuming & murder tactics. They dress like shrunken-down Reaganite adults and sidestep the traditional slasher weapon of a glistening kitchen knife for more pedestrian tools of chaos: skateboards, baseball bats, shovels, cars, etc. One of the little tykes even hunts down his elders with a stolen handgun – which would be a disappointing weapon in the hands of a Michael Myers but is genuinely horrifying when operated by a child. It’s unexpected details like that gun that keeps Bloody Birthday exciting even if you’re already over-familiar with the slasher genre at large. It’s not interesting enough for teens to make out in a graveyard in this film; they have to make out in a grave. Not only do the children have an unsettling prurient interest in adult sexuality, peering in on sex & private stripteases; they also fire a bow & arrow through their peephole. After two 2019 releases (Ma & Psycho Granny), this is the third film I’ve seen this year where a killer maniacally scrapbooks about their crimes – a very unsettling hobby for a child. This is a deeply ugly, unwholesome glimpse at Reagan Era suburbia, and the kids are not alright, not at all.

That spiritual ugliness also extends to the film’s look & sound. This is a repugnantly colorless affair, dealing almost exclusively in muddied browns & greys. The sound quality of my blind-buy DVD copy left the dialogue outright indecipherable, prompting us to switch to Severin’s digital restoration currently streaming on Shudder (which was only slightly better, but at least audible). Unlike in most first-wave slashers of its era, the murders in the film actually weigh on the community they terrorize, which mostly manifests in teary-eyed funerals, public meltdowns at kids’ birthday parties, and hospitalized psychiatric retreats to aid recovery. It’s a sense of grief & despair that keeps the mood harshly grotesque & rotten, even when the Evil Children’s wicked deeds stray into over-the-top camp. I personally never tire of the killer-children horror genre and had a lot of fun with this film’s peculiar melding of Village of the Damned tradition with Halloween modernism. It’s an ugly watch in both texture & sentiment, though, one that’s bested as a bygone nasty in its genre only by Who Can Kill a Child?. It works wonderfully well as a genre deviation for both the killer-children thriller and the traditional first-wave slasher, and there are plenty of cartoonishly excessive joys to be found in its intergenerational kills. It’s just also a nasty slice of schlock in its own right, though, so be prepared to squirm between your guffaws.

-Brandon Ledet

Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama (1988)

It’s a shame that the David DeCoteau horror-comedy curio Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama couldn’t live up to the glorious sleaze of its A+ title, but what movie possibly could? From the hot pink comic sans & video game keyboards score of its opening credits to the Porky’s-level slimeballery of its nerds-desperate-to-get-laid rising action, everything about the film’s opening act plays like an attempt to undercut the expectations set by that wonderful title. It almost worked too. Once I adjusted to the limited scope of its horny teen-boy sexuality & no budget DeCoteau shapelessness I started to have fun with the film as a low-stakes Full Moon Entertainment acquisition (the exact VHS genre territory that encapsulates the entirety of the Canuxploitation schlockteur’s catalog). Unfortunately, it was the Full Moon calling card of a pint-sized monster puppet that interrupts the film’s party-time sleaze and sours the mood past the point of enjoyability.

Three virginal nerds escape the boredom of their college dorm by spying on a sorority pledge initiation ritual: a softcore display that leans heavily into girl-on-girl spanking erotica. Once inevitably caught in the act, the boys are paired off with the pledges they spied on for a much less titillating hazing ritual: being dispatched to break into the bowling alley at the nearby shopping mall. As you would expect, this transgression releases a demonic puppet known as an “imp” who lives in an enchanted bowling trophy. The imp then tortures the college-age bimbos of both genders by granting a series of backfiring monkey’s paw wishes. Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama is half sorority-initiation spanking erotica (which is admittedly fun for what it is) and half a goofball creature feature centered around this itsy-bitsy-cutie demon, who actively ruins the mood. It’s not that his design or his kills aren’t passably amusing. It’s that he’s inexplicably voiced with a minstrel show-level racial caricature, which is a deeply ugly impulse the film never recovers from.

The one saving grace of this picture as a cult curio is that it managed to collect an impressive gaggle of 1980s scream queens – The Slumber Party Massacre’s Brinke Stevens, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers’s Michelle Bauer, and all-around Sleazy Slasher goddess Linnea Quigley. You can see that exact trio share the screen in other titles like Nightmare Sisters, however, without having to suffer the “comedy” stylings of this film’s racist puppet. Only Quigley breaks through the tedium of the script with a notable performance, playing a no-fucks-to-give biker who hates the other character’s guts just as much as the audience does. Otherwise, the only exciting character work here is in the light kink teased in the sorority sisters’ prurient enthusiasm for spanking new recruits. Their horned-up declaration that “It’s better to give than it is to receive” frames them as young lesbian dominatrices in training, which the movie can’t help but accentuate with some leather fetish gear when a wish goes awry in the tiny, racist hands of the demon imp.

It’s a shame that this film never fully veers into genuine softcore porno, since that’s where its heart truly lies. A few occasional stunts like a car flipping over, a victim being set on fire, and a human head being substituted as a bowling ball justify its designation as a horror comedy, but it’s foremost a sorority-set spanking video that’s unfortunately hosted by a minstrel show puppet. I suppose there’s some novelty in seeing that kind of genre territory poke around a bowling alley setting and I highly doubt this is the worst specimen in DeCouteau’s expansive catalog of cheapo oddities, but there’s still not much to recommend here beyond an A+ title & poster:

-Brandon Ledet

Spookies (1986)

At their best, horror anthologies revive the undead spirit of EC Comics and short-fiction collections like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: curated omnibuses of various ghouls & creepies that run the full creature-feature spectrum in one concise volume. The 1986 horror cheapie Spookies accomplishes that same effect in a roundabout way, even though it’s not technically an anthology picture. Its own tasting-menu collection of spooky monsters was not arranged as a deliberate series of vignettes, but rather hastily slapped together in post-production to save itself from being scrapped entirely. Originally conceived & shot as a haunted house picture titled Twisted Souls, the film was stripped from the hands of its original creators in a bitter post-production brawl with the studio. After-the-fact co-director & editor Eugenie Joseph was then hired to shoot additional footage set in the same haunted house locale to Frankenstein together a “cohesive” cut of the film without the input of the original crew. Joseph received top-bill over the original directors (Thomas Doran & Brendan Faulkner), as her revision of & addition to the Twisted Souls footage was molded into the delightful, creepy-crawly mess that is Spookies. Fractured across two separate production crews and held together only by its central haunted house locale, Spookies is effectively a creature feature horror anthology: a series of disconnected vignettes that each present a spooky-creature-of-the-minute for our temporary enjoyment.

It’s crystal clear why Joseph had to shoot additional footage to craft a cohesive “story” out of Twisted Souls’s leftovers. The original storyline, as presented in the finished product, involves a cast of drunken hooligans looking to party in a haunted house only to be tormented by the spooky creatures therein. There’s no goal, payoff, or overarching theme to this haunted house experience – just a Scooby-Doo style investigation: systematically opening very door in an old Gothic house to reveal the next consecutive jumpscare. Joseph’s first major addition is the semblance of a plot. She shot a series of ghoulish pontifications from a Vincent Price-type eccentric villain who seemingly dispatches the titular spookies on the housecrashers from a far-off parlor. He never shares the screen with the spookies for obvious reasons, but he at least affords them a purpose & an origin. Other additions were obviously a play to pad out the slim runtime of Twisted Souls’s leftovers, especially a B-story where a young boy unconnected to the housecrashers is chased through a graveyard by the ghoulish eccentric’s werecat servant. I also get the sense that Joseph made some of her more obnoxious additions to Spookies merely to amuse herself in the editing room –namely adding fart noises to a scene where characters are tormented by subterranean monsters that I suppose she interpreted to be septic. Whether the fart noises were something she genuinely believed improved the atmosphere of that scene or she added them solely to troll the financiers who put her in the position of cleaning up someone else’s mess in the editing room is anyone’s guess. Either way, it’s a hilariously juvenile gag that helps remind the audience to not take anything onscreen too seriously, lest we start getting annoyed at Spookies’s total disregard for purpose or continuity.

As interesting as Spookies is for its AIP-reminiscent production history (think The Terror or Blood Bath), the film’s only true merit as entertainment is how many spookies it can manage to deliver in its brisk 80min runtime. It does an admirable job in that respect, flooding the screen with as many “spookies” as it can think to conjure: demons, witches, zombies, werecats, spiderwomen, killer toys, Ouija boards, basement-dwelling fart monsters, and so on. Its disinterest in plot, its overflow of spooky creatures, and its classic haunted house & graveyard sets all make it perfect background fodder for your next cheap-beer Halloween gathering with spookies-loving friends. Horror anthologies are always an excellent choice for those short attention span scenarios, apparently including ones that become anthologies by accident in post. I even got a déjà vu sensation midway through the film that I had seen it before somewhere, so maybe I’ve even been to a party where Spookies was playing in the background – exactly where it belongs.

-Brandon Ledet

Cellular (2004)

There was a time recently when British action star Jason Statham started poking fun at his onscreen persona in projects like The Expendables, Fast & Furious, and Spy and I realized that, despite his rapidly growing fame, I had no real idea who he is. Statham was already a brand worthy of self-satire by the time he registered on my radar at all. I obviously didn’t need to be too familiar with his oeuvre for those jokes to land (any passing knowledge of post-80s Tough Guy action stars of any stripe would do), but I still felt like I was missing out on something. It turns out that the gaps in my Statham knowledge were mostly a string of mid-00s action vehicles like The Transporter, The Bank Job, and Crank, which I’ve been gradually catching up on in recent months while parsing out the persona of this muscly mystery man. Oddly, it wasn’t any of these starring roles for Statham that solidified my understanding of his screen presence. It was instead his minor role as a Tough Guy villain in the 2004 action goof-em-around Cellular that brought home my introspective search for who Jason Statham really is.

It turns out that Jason Statham is a dick, at least onscreen. He even looks like a penis, considering his closely shaved head’s throbbing veins and his penchant for mod-style turtlenecks. Once you grasp that he’s hired to be instantly detestable as screenwriting shorthand, his typecasting become so much clearer in retrospect. In The Transporter, he’s a selfish brute of a nerd who allows his heartless, rules-obsessed professionalism to prevent him from doing the right thing (until a victim of his thuggish clients melts his icy heart). In Spy, he’s a self-aggrandizing blowhard who steamrolls women in conversation and in the workplace. In the Fast & Furious franchise he’s a self-serving, cold-hearted killer who doesn’t know the first thing about Family (until, again, his heart is melted over time). It’s a tradition that stretches back to his bit roles as a growling toughie in Guy Ritchie’s early movies. The brilliant thing about Statham’s casting in Cellular is that he’s only there because of his instant hateability as a total dick. The movie’s plot contrivances are so absurdly over the top that it has no time to invest in fleshing out the character of its central villain, so Statham’s instantly recognizable dickholery is meant to serve as a shortcut. And it mostly works.

Based on a story outline from legendary schlockteur Larry Cohen (who dared to ask, “What if I wrote Phone Booth again, but this time with cellphones?”), Cellular is the exact kind of obnoxious, high-concept nonsense that action cinema junkies are always looking for at the movies. Statham and his army of similarly dickish baddies kidnap a suburban high school biology teacher played by Kim Basinger and terrorize her in an attic for some reason or another. Desperate to call for help, Basinger uses her Science Knowledge to operate the only means of communication left in her newfound prison: a landline phone that Statham smashed to pieces. By tapping the wires of the broken device together to dial random numbers, Basinger miraculously connects to a nearby Nokia brick cellphone helmed by Chris Evans (in total bimbo dude-bro mode here). The original Cohen script was meant as a bitterly cynical social satire about the early days of cellphone obsession, but the version that actually got made is a goofball swashbuckling adventure in which Evans overcomes his carefree Beach Jock life of selfish hedonism to do something heroic for a change. As he gets involved in a series of escalating car chases, gun fights, and kidnapping crises in an effort to save a helpless stranger he has one clear mission: Don’t let the cellphone call drop or she’ll die. That’s quite a premise; classic Cohen.

I wouldn’t necessarily call this a great movie, but it can be a lot of fun as a gimmicky time capsule of quickly outdated tech. The early scenes where Evans is bragging that his brick phone can take pictures is especially amusing, as are later action set pieces where he has to rob an electronics store for a charger or hijacks a stranger’s phone when his all-important call is transferred via a cross-connection mishap. There’s also a very amusing moment where William H. Macy, playing a one-day-from-retirement cop, gets to be heroic in full slow-motion splendor, which is a rare look for him. Even if this is the least interesting execution of a deliriously fun premise possible, it’s still got that Larry Cohen touch of a fully committed gimmick that could just about carry any dead weight you pile on top of it. That might explain why a movie this culturally insignificant somehow inspired international remakes in Bollywood, Tollywood, and Hong Kong. The “Drop the cellphone call and she’ll die!” premise is just that strong. Besides, it has the added lagniappe of seeing Jason Statham’s instantly detestable dickishness being employed for its full villainous potential, which I apparently needed to see to fully understand his deal in general, even if he usually channels that persona into gruff anti-heroes.

-Brandon Ledet

Jawbreaker (1999)

I’m genuinely shocked by how few times I’ve seen the 1999 high school murder comedy Jawbreaker compared to other films in its same wheelhouse. This is far from the pinnacle of the post-Heathers teen girl cruelty satire, but I’m still close enough to dead center in its target demographic that it should have been a teen-years favorite for me. Was it merely the happenstance that Drop Dead Gorgeous was the murderous-teen-girls high school comedy that found its way onto Blockbuster’s used VHS liquidation tables at the right moment that made that one a go-to standard for me instead? Both films are deeply flawed for sure, but I could never tell exactly why one was a beloved favorite that I looped into dust while the other was a film that I occasionally ran across here or there. In retrospect, I think it’s mostly because the appeal of Drop Dead Gorgeous is instantly recognizable; the low-key absurdism of its femmed-up Christopher Guest mockumentary schtick strikes a somewhat familiar tone, no matter how ill-behaved its amorality can be from gag to gag. The specificity of Jawbreaker’s appeal was a little more obscured & difficult to pin down for me, but it finally clicked on my most recent rewatch (only my second or third experience with the film, somehow): it’s Gay.

More specifically, Jawbreaker is perversely funny for having teenage high school girls deliver dialogue obviously written by adult gay men. Judging by writer-director Darren Stein’s work on explicitly gay projects like the queer screwball high school comedy G.B.F. (Gay Best Friend) and the drag queen horror comedy All About Evil, he knew exactly what he was doing here. The dissonance of Jawbreaker is that the Teen Girl actors tasked to deliver his Gay Man dialogue don’t know what they’re communicating at all; it’s as if they’re phonetically speaking a foreign language for the very first time. The result is a bizarre comedy that is paradoxically both over-written and under-performed, which makes it exceedingly difficult to connect with if you aren’t aware of the reason for that disconnect. Once you realize the film is basically the preemptive drag parody of itself, however, everything clicks into place. It becomes clear why all the girls are breathlessly horny for each other, why they use the word “kink” every other sentence, why they emphasize the pet names “Honey” and “Bitch” with such withering sass, and why the film’s only genuine sex scene revolves around a jock hunk fellating a popsicle. It’s Gay™.

One thing both Jawbreaker and Drop Dead Gorgeous get exactly right about the post-Heathers mean-girl high school comedy template is the callous cruelty, something not all its descendants have the stomach to commit to. In this case, Stein specifically zeroed in on the Corn Nuts gag from the iconic Daniel Waters screenplay, a sequence in which a beloved prom queen chokes to death in a prank gone horribly wrong. In Jawbreaker, the most popular girl in school is “kidnapped” by her friends as a prank for her 17th birthday, gagged with the titular candy to muffle her screams of protest. When she chokes to death on the giant ball of sugar in the trunk of their car, they decide to restage her death as a rape & murder case at the hands of a stranger, and their lies eventually overwhelm them in a haphazard cover-up. This mostly manifests in them bribing the school’s most reclusive werido nerd (played by Judy Greer, somewhere under a pile of oversized wigs & sweaters) with a hot-girl makeover. They help her navigate being on top of the clique culture food chain that once buried her (pointing out such adorable social distinctions as The Karen Carpenter Table in the cafeteria) while also coaching her in how to lie to the homicide detective who investigates their friend’s death (Pam Grier, forever a badass). Unbeknownst to anyone involved, they also teach her the ways of Adult Gay Man sass & slang in exchanges like “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” “No, honey, you’re the bitch.” Did I mention that this film is Gay?

Besides its post-Heathers cruelty and its preemptive drag parody humor, Jawbreaker is most enjoyable for its bubblegum pop art aesthetic. It’s a film that’s firmly rooted in a 90s high school comedy patina (after all, it’s one of two 1999 films in which The Donnas play the climactic prom), but its candy-coated surface also has a distinctive retro appeal to it. In that way, I’d almost more readily recommend it to fans of the Sexy Archie update Riverdale than to anyone looking for more of a Drop Dead Gorgeous sensibility. If nothing else, Rose McGowan exudes some real Cheryl Blossom energy in her role as the school’s queen bee, and the cheekily named Reagan High setting shares an R letterman patch with the classic Riverdale uniform. Sometimes this heightened rot-your-teeth pop aesthetic shines beautifully, like in several surreal sequences where the titular jawbreaker makes its way through a giallo-lit candy factory or rotates in the air like a planetary orb. Sometimes it falls embarrassingly flat, as in the obnoxious screen-wipes that frequently interrupt the dialogue or the visible boom mic that dips into the cafeteria tour. Either way, the film shares the clueless-teens-delivering-Adult-Gay-Man-dialogue dissonance that also makes Riverdale weirdly enjoyable, which manifests here in strange touches like the casting of legends like P.J. Soles & Carol Kane or in throwaway references to Barbara Streisand’s “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” for no reason in particular. It’s disorienting, but it helps distinguish Jawbreaker as having a distinct flavor within the post-Heathers teen cruelty pantheon. I still don’t love it as much as Drop Dead Gorgeous, but I at least now clearly recognize its appeal as The Gay One in its genre.

-Brandon Ledet

The Dragon Lives Again (1977)

There is almost no way to describe what happens in the public domain martial arts cheapie The Dragon Lives Again without overselling its low-key charm. Part of the 1970s wave of “Brucesploitation” pictures that capitalized on the untimely death of rising action star Bruce Lee by casting less talented knockoff performers like Bruce Le, Bruce Li, and Bruce Leong in his place, this is the kind of dime-a-dozen schlock that really has to swing for the fences in its basic premise if it’s going to stand out in any way. The filmmakers may have gotten a little overzealous in that effort here, making a deeply, deeply strange film by any standard while merely attempting to stand out among their Brucesplotiation peers. In The Dragon Lives Again, “Bruce Lee” teams up with Popeye the Sailor Man to beat up James Bond, Dracula, The Exorcist, “Clint Eastwood,” and a Party City-costumed skeleton army in Hell. I’m not exaggerating. If anything, I’m holding back other post-modern, copyright-infringing character inclusions (like soft-core porno icon Emmanuelle) in an attempt to simplify the concept. I also hesitate to hook anyone into watching the film based on that synopsis alone, since it promises a surrealist action spectacle that The Dragon Lives Again is not interested in delivering. There are certainly bursts of exciting fight choreography to be found here or there, but for the most part this is a weirdly low-energy hangout film where Bruce Lee chills in Hell with his newfound friends & enemies from pop culture royalty of past & present. The premise does little to prepare you for how lackadaisical the tone & pacing can be.

You may find the idea of a film “dedicated to the millions who love Bruce Lee” that opens with the beloved, deceased actor (played here by Bruce Leong) waking up in Hell a little distasteful. Would it help if I told you that most of the film’s commentary on Lee’s real-life persona revolves around his reputation as a lady-killer and, frankly, a slut? Or that he’s eventually successful in his war against The Emperor of the Underworld’s gang of pop culture misfits and earns his life back on Earth through his combat skills (a chance obviously never afforded to Lee in the “real“ afterlife)? Probably not. It’s as if The Dagon Lives Again’s major contribution to the “Brucesploitation” genre was to really lean into the ”exploitation” half of the portmanteau. This an R-rated picture with lengthy, nudity-filled trips the Emperor’s royal bathhouses. “Bruce” spends a lot of his screen time (when he’s not hanging out with Popeye or teaching gambling addicts how to shed their vice) either seducing women or turning down their offers to seduce him. When he arrives in Hell as a fresh corpse in the opening scene his nunchucks are mistaken by the Emperor’s harem as a bulging erection. The movie makes sure to pack the screen with just enough horned-up sleaze to fill the time between its occasional sequences of “Bruce” beating up famous pop culture characters & their nameless ghoul-goons in bursts of chaotic martial arts spectacle. And just in case you forget that the figure you’re watching onscreen is “Bruce Lee” himself, he goads his opponents with self-referential taunts like “Now enter the dragon!” before punctuating the joke with a punch to drive it home. The film is almost as sleazy as it is silly – no small feat considering its premise.

A lot of what helps The Dagon Lives Again go down smoothly despite its low-energy hangout vibe and weakness for exploitative sleaze is its self-awareness in just how silly it’s being from scene to scene. Of course, the film could not afford to animate Popeye the Sailor Man à la Roger Rabbit nor to hire the real-life Clint Eastwood to appear onscreen next to its knockoff Bruce Lee, so it only puts in the bare minimum effort for the audience to recognize those pop culture figures through their Spirit Halloween Store costuming. It directly acknowledges that visual discrepancy, though, with Bruce Lee’s unconvincing appearance as Bruce Leong being explained in a throwaway line about how when you die your face & body change in the afterlife. More importantly, the movie deploys classic Looney Tunes gags (like opponents being tickled mid-battle or a pistol firing a red flag instead of a bullet), joke needle drops for the Carl Douglas disco hit “Kung Fu Fighting,” and a credits-length spoof of the James Bond series’ iconic intros just to signal that nothing in the film should be taken too seriously (least of all Bruce Lee’s legacy). It’s almost less of a genuine artifact of Brucesploitation than it is a ZAZ-style spoof of the genre – just with a significantly less zany energy level. Besides, even if you did have a chip on your shoulder about the film’s careless handling of Bruce Lee’s legacy, you’ve already won the battle. Because of the film’s shaky-at-best rights issues, it’s currently only available in hideous, crudely cropped public domain transfers that frequently cut entire characters out of the frame while they’re talking. It’s already been banished to the hellish dregs of YouTube & PutoTV where only weirdos who are awake at 3am will stumble into it, perplexed– the only delirious, low-stakes state where this movie stands a chance to fully satisfy its audience anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

Corrupt (1999)

Albert Pyun is one of those under-the-radar schlockteurs of the direct-to-VHS and early-VOD eras who churns out dozens & dozens of low-profile genre pics at an alarming rate without drawing too much attention to himself. Chances are that if you’ve seen an Albert Pyun film it wasn’t on purpose, but rather a statistical inevitability since he’s made so many sci-fi & crime film cheapies that you were bound to stumble into one of them eventually. For instance, I recently picked up a $1 used DVD copy of Pyun’s “urban” crime film Corrupt because it featured New Orleans rapper Silkk the Shocker on the cover, who I couldn’t recall ever having seen in a proper feature film before. I still haven’t. Part of Albert Pyun’s “Urban Trilogy” (alongside the Snoop Dogg vehicles Urban Menace & The Wrecking Crew), Corrupt is indeed Silkk the Shocker’s feature film debut as an actor, but only on a technicality. Shot in early-digital’s cheapo days (and trying to pass off the Czech Republic as New York City), this film is a very slight 69min that just barely holds itself together long enough to qualify as a movie. Silkk The Shocker also fades into the background for long stretches so that his costar, Ice-T, winds up claiming the most screentime (despite being the antagonist). This is an Ice-T movie that Silkk The Shocker just happens to pass through from time to time, but my purchase of the film under a mistaken pretense of what I was getting into is fairly typical to the quantity-over-quality M.O. for Pyun in general, so I was amused by the bait and switch.

While the title might signal that this is a thriller about crooked cops, it turns out Corrupt is the name of Ice-T’s character, not a descriptor of his persona. The controversial-rapper-turned-network-television-star appears here as the exact kind of criminal dirtbag he now pursues weekly as a fictional police detective on Law & Order: SVU. A drug kingpin with a hot temper, Corrupt threatens to implode an ongoing truce between NYC gangs because he cannot leave one particular brother-sister duo in his neighborhood alone – the brother (Silkk the Shocker) because he suspects him of stealing his drugs and the sister (Eva La Dare) because he wants to use his powerful street status to coerce her into bed. Silkk the Shocker occasionally runs across the screen to fire a gun in Ice-T’s general direction but most of Corrupt is concerned with that latter conflict with the sister. This is a shockingly dialogue-heavy picture about sexual coercion & rape in organized street crime, amounting to more of a melodrama than a crime thriller. A few disorienting smash-cut establishing-shot montages attempt to convince the audience that we’re watching a New York story, but most of the film is confined to single-location indoor scenes in the warehouses & diners of Bratislava, so that the film feels like a morbid stage play wherein a gangster abuses his power to manipulate a woman who does not want to sleep with him into bed. It’s a much more somber, wordy picture than you’d expect given its early-digi crime cheapie pedigree, which is the exact kind of expectation vs. reality dissonance that typifies Albert Pyun’s career.

Since the novelty of a Silkk the Shocker movie is minimalized along with the local rapper’s screentime, there are exactly two reasons why anyone should ever seek out Corrupt on purpose. The first is that its DVD (as well as the only version of the film uploaded to YouTube, appropriately) includes an amazingly disrespectful commentary track from Ice-T. Bored in the recording booth, Ice-T mercilessly riffs on the film in an MST3k tradition as if under the (understandable) assumption that no one would ever possibly be listening. He makes fun of the cheapness of Albert Pyun’s catalog in general, and jokes about how he only did a Pyun film because he’s been “blackballed from real movies” (this was before his TV career took off). He even makes fun of the audience for having purchased the DVD in the first place, much less played his commentary track, reasoning “You’re a loser with too much time on your hands.” (Fair point, no lies detected.) On the off chance that you’re actually interested in the production details for Corrupt, he does ease off these self-deprecating bon mots for insights like his complaint that “There was no place to shit” on set, so the crew would have to “hold it in the whole day.” It’s amazing. The second reason the film is potentially worth seeking out is that it features a scene in which Ice-T self-emulates with impossibly cheap CG-fire effects in order to dispose of his enemies (his mechanism for surviving the burns himself being too convoluted to be worth explaining). The image is so cheaply done that it approaches an art-film surreality that gives me hope there are other sublimely absurdist moments awaiting me the next time I accidentally stumble into an Albert Pyun film. It’s still a moment I’d recommend enhancing with Ice-T’s commentary track for peak effectiveness, though.

Since purchasing this film, one of my favorite modern critics (Justin Decloux of Film Trap and the Important Cinema Club podcast) has published an entire book of critical essays exploring the appeal of Albert Pyun as a filmmaker, titled Radioactive Dreams. Maybe after reading that collection I’ll be better equipped in purposefully seeking out Pyun films for pleasure instead of stumbling across them in confusion. One thing will not change though: Corrupt will still hold less value as a Silkk the Shocker vehicle (despite him being featured prominently on the poster) than it does as a showcase for Ice-T – as an actor as well as a raconteur (in his no-fucks-given commentary track) and a rapper (Ice-T songs play almost continually throughout the film with his vocals alarmingly high in the mix). I guess I’m going to have to seek out my Silkk the Shocker fix in his next film credit after Corrupt, Hot Boyz, which was apparently produced & directed by his brother Master P.

-Brandon Ledet

Masked Mutilator (2019)

Masked Mutilator checks off a suspiciously high number of my personal-interest boxes for a project that seemingly materialized out of thin air. A no-budget backyard slasher cheapie about mid-90s pro wrestlers and late-2010s podcasting? I’m not sure I didn’t conjure this movie into existence in the middle of a powerful dream, since it’s essentially a jumbled collection of nouns that rattle around in my brain all day anyway. All that’s really missing is a few drag queens & a Xiu Xiu soundtrack. The truth is, though, that the film has been gestating for 25 long years before finally being completed in 2019, so its out-of-thin-air mystique is a total illusion. Initially filmed on 16mm in the mid-90s and eventually bookended with a digital-age frame story in the 2010s (thanks to crowdfunding via IndieGoGo), Masked Mutilator is a fairly typical backyard horror cheapie that’s only made worth discussion because it’s been dislodged from its place in time. There’s almost no way the movie would be half as fascinating if it weren’t for its bizarre multi-decade production “schedule,” and even then it’s not all that remarkable. This is basically Shirkers for Idiots (like me). There’s no denying it has a great hook in its premise and an interesting context as a recovered object, but it’s terminally inessential.

The modern digi-grade frame story involves, as all masterpieces of Le Cinéma do, a podcast recording. Survivors of a fictional 1990s tragedy guest on a true-crime podcast about “Group Home Killings,” recalling the hyper-specific talk radio program “Why Do Boys Kill Their Mothers?” in Psycho IV. This setup is a convenient contextualization of the 16mm footage to follow, which makes up a bulk of the slight 76min runtime. While the podcast conversation stokes gravely serious topics surrounding the abuse of vulnerable teens in group homes, it comes to little surprise that the no-budget slasher plot it’s setting up in flashbacks doesn’t explore these times with any genuine concern or curiosity. An ex-luchador who was blacklisted from his industry for killing an opponent in the ring resurfaces as an unlikely counselor in a group home for teens. His violent past makes him the prime suspect when the teens under his care are picked off one by one at the hands of a muscly killer who wears his old wrestling gear, with his luchador mask now functioning as an executioner’s hood. The mutilated teens are too generic to especially care about (defined by such personality traits as Heavy Metal, Nunchucks, and Horny). The gore is too cheap to be gruesome and too restrained to be fun (despite the film being an early credit for SFX television personality Glenn Hedrick). The identity of the true killer is embarrassingly obvious long before its reveal. The only remarkable aspect of the picture, then, is that it exists – which truly is a feat for any film, to be fair. Movies are hard to make, especially when you’re just hanging around the living room with your friends (as appears to be the case in this instance).

I likely would have been able to overlook the low-energy aimlessness of this doomed project if I had been familiar with the pro wrestlers involved in its production. Brick Bronksy, Jim “The Tank” Dorsey, and Doug Yasinsky weren’t anywhere near my radar despite their involvement with massive promotions like WWF in their heyday. Even so, I was still amused to see these gigantic muscly men crammed into the tiny kitchens & living rooms of this group home location. I also appreciated that the kills were somewhat wrestling-specific, as the luchador executioner character crushes & punches his teen victims to death with brute force (before chopping them up for the incinerator in the film’s sparse moments of genuine gore). With some recognizable pro wrestling personalities, some Matt Farley-level joke writing, and slightly more grotesque violence, this might have been an abandoned relic turned cult classic. Instead, it’s only recommendable for the more hopeless fans of pro wrestling & no-budget slashers, total goners (like myself) who’d have no self-control to avoid it based on the luchador-horror premise – if not going as far as having donated to its crowdfunding campaign to complete it in the fist place. I was never especially thrilled by this recovered artifact from minute to minute, but I still maintained a “Good for them!” attitude towards the filmmakers throughout for having finally completed it, especially since their niche interests apparently overlap so extensively with my own.

-Brandon Ledet

Eraser (1996)

One of my all-time favorite movie subgenres is the The Internet is Trying to Kill Us thriller, in which mundane online user-interface tech is transformed into a horrific menace that’s aiming to destroy us all. The genre was still in its infancy in the mid-90s at a time when The Internet was just starting to invade our homes, which gave early specimens like The Net a growing-pains conundrum on how to translate online imagery & lingo into traditional studio thriller beats. As a result, that film spends a lot of time following Sandra Bullock around irl as baddies erase her identity online – a compromise between the cyberthriller and the traditional action film (as opposed to more recent, fully-immersed Internet Thrillers like Unfriended). Looking back on the Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick Eraser now, over two decades after its release, it’s a film that feels equally paranoid about the advancement of 90s computer tech and the flimsiness of personal identity in the Information Age as The Net, but it makes even less of an effort to translate that Luddite unease into new cinematic language. Eraser turns the fears surrounding computer tech’s intrusion into American homes into a villainous threat by manifesting it as a big scary future-gun. It’s the most direct, literal approach to the topic possible, and it’s charmingly boneheaded as a result.

The future-gun in Eraser doesn’t shoot bullets, but rather electromagnetic impulses. Its viewfinder display is designed like the sickly green MS DOS grids that decorated far too many cyberthrillers in the 90s, most notably The Matrix. Instead of merely offering the gun operator night vision, this feature allows them to see through walls & bodies like a digital X-ray machine. The gun is designed for military use (and, naturally, falls into the hands of international terrorists), but it’s almost exclusively deployed in domestic settings throughout the film. Characters who threaten to expose the government’s mishandling of the gun’s development and sale are shot at with “electromagnetic impulses” through the walls of their own homes in the Washington D.C. suburbs, so that computerized technology is literally invading their domestic spaces to destroy therm. Vanessa Williams stars as a military-weapons detractor who steals the designs for this future-gun on a miniature CDR, so she is pursued for the disc in the exact way Bullock is pursued for her own forbidden floppy disc in The Net. The only difference here is that Arnold Schwarzenegger is heroic for erasing her identity online as a way of protecting her as a witness. The tagline even boasts, “He will erase your past to protect your future.” Sill, the flimsiness of identity in the digital age is a premise the film banks on to hook the audience, and the film shares a lot of thematic & aesthetic preoccupations with The Net even if it replaces the ethereal qualities of The Internet with a physical “electromagnetic” gun.

Eraser only has one foot in the future of Internet Age techno thrillers. Everything about the film besides the future-gun and the erasure of online identity records is very much rooted in the familiar tropes & imagery of the Schwarzenegger action canon. The film opens with a suiting-up montage (one of many) where Arnold loads down his muscly body with superfluous weaponry. He dresses in almost the exact leather jacket outfits he already self-parodied himself for in The Last Action Hero four years prior. Every time he enters the frame he’s accompanied by guitar-solo theme music announcing his heroism. Most dialogue consists of 90s-era action movie one-liners as Schwarzenegger goes about the business of saving the world from terrorists & cyberguns, including the title-riffing quip “Smile. You’ve just been erased.” Within this familiar framework, Eraser can only stand out on the strength of its individual set pieces, of which ether are two absolute stunners: one where Arnie jumps out of an airplane without a parachute and one where he kills a room full of baddies by releasing CG alligators at the zoo. The gators sequence stuck with me in particular as a kid, being the only detail I vividly remembered about the film besides the cybergun. I was glad to confirm on revisit that the gator stunt is extensive, featuring far more CG chomping action than necessary to get its point across. If only they could’ve found a way to arm the gators with their own cyberguns to tie the sequence into the film’s larger themes of technophobia . . .

I wouldn’t vouch for Eraser’s excellence as an especially exceptional example of Arnold Schwarzenegger action cinema, nor as a clear early entry in the Evil Internet canon. The evil-clone movie The Sixth Day might even be a more calcified example of an Arnie film that directly engages with the technophobia of the early Internet Era. Still, there’s a kind of distinctly 90s anxiety about computerized technology invading suburban homes in Eraser that makes it just as fun of a dated watch as more explicitly Internet-dreading thrillers like The Net. Besides, it really does have some of the best gator-flavored mayhem you’re likely to see in a big budget action movie of its ilk, a novelty that cannot be undervalued.

-Brandon Ledet

P.S. I Love You (2007)

If you read a plot synopsis for the 2007 chick-flick oddity P.S. I Love You without any other context, you’d likely mistake the film for a heart-wrenching melodrama, a romantic weepie. This a movie in which a careerless New Yorker (Hillary Swank) loses her young, brash husband (Gerard Butler) to a brain tumor before the opening credits. As a final grand romantic gesture, the husband had arranged for a series of posthumous letters to be delivered to his wife from beyond the grave, each prompting her to move on with her life instead of dwelling on the past. The obvious, default tone for this narrative would be Sirkian sentimentality & heightened emotional catharsis. What makes the movie fascinatingly perverse is that it isn’t a drama at all, but rather an impossibly dark, morbid comedy that plays its tragic premise for yucks instead of tears. All its surface details convey a commercial, conventional “woman’s picture” about a young widow mending her broken heart. In practice, though, it’s a pitch-black comedy that plays the trauma of losing a romantic partner to brain cancer as an opportunity for some jovial gallows humor.

Not only does P.S. I Love You play like a subversive black comedy despite its conventional surface, it specifically plays like a morbid subversion of the romcom format. The only difference is that in this scenario The Wrong Guy that the lovelorn protagonist must get over so she can better herself happens to be her husband’s ghost. His letters from the afterlife prompt her to revisit memories & locations from their shared past as a proper last goodbye, but they also allow his sprit to re-enter the picture and comfort her as she feels his presence in these old haunts. His letters even push her to find new potential beaus (or at least one-night boytoys) in bit-role hunks Harry Connick Jr. & Jeffrey Dean Morgan (whose naked butt is ogled at length for straight-lady titillation). Like in all romcoms, the best characters are the ones with no stakes who’re only there to lighten the mood, with no real plot-related obligations; in this case it’s Gina Gershon, Lisa Kudrow, and Kathy Bates as Swank’s family & gal-pals, a stellar lineup by any standard. Unlike in most romcoms, though, her personal success in the film is not defined by finding a replacement husband, but rather finding the fine art of Shoes. Also, and I cannot stress this enough, it’s unusual for a joke-heavy romcom to open with the protagonist’s husband dying of a brain tumor.

Besides being shockingly morbid for a romcom (and borderline supernatural), P.S. I Love You is also certifiably drunk. That choice is questionable, given the harmful cliché it propagates about its characters’ Irish & Irish-American communities, but the sea-legs alcoholism of the film does afford it a distinctly human, relatable tone that’s often missing from these mainstream romcoms. Characters drink past blackout, raising their glasses to the dead while slurring along with the most vulgar Pogues songs on the jukebox. When the widow imagines in a flashback that her husband is “the only person in the room,” the number of beer bottles & plastic cups strewn about the empty bar they’re in is astronomical. The film even opens with a drunken late-night fight a la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Returning home from a party, Butler & Swank argue vehemently about children, money, careers, romance, and sex in an off-puttingly drunk communication meltdown, then immediately kiss & makeup. That’s our only taste of the husband before his untimely death. It’s like the movie itself is drunk along with its characters, which is why it’s so carefree about making light of brain cancer & young widowhood. It’s a little jarring tonally, but certainly a lot more fun than a straight-faced, sober drama with this same tragic story would be.

I don’t want to oversell P.S. I Love You as a dark subversion of commercial filmmaking. If anything, the perverse pleasures the film has to offer are in how cookie-cutter & familiar its surface details are despite the tragic humor & borderline magical realism of its premise. That means that a lot of the usual romcom shortcomings apply here: characters complaining about having no money despite living in multi-million-dollar Manhattan lofts; shockingly regressive treatment of anyone who’s not straight or white; reinforcement of Patriarchal standards of femme beauty & health, etc. Worse yet, because the film at least somewhat pretends to be a romantic drama it has the gall to stretch on for a full two hours, which is at least 20min longer than any romcom should ever dare. That’s likely because it drunkenly stumbled into functioning as a romcom by mistake. It over-corrected in lightening its pitch-black tone with proper Jokes and subsequently transformed into a bizarrely fascinating object as a result. P.S. I Love You is too long, politically muddled, and hopelessly confused about what kind of movie it wants to be. Still, it’s well worth putting up with those shortcomings just to witness the novelty of a romcom about a woman who must break up with her drunk husband’s ghost so she can find her true love in Shoes.

It’s also worth it for Lisa Kudrow. She’s very funny, no matter how morbid the context.

-Brandon Ledet